"There is a phone booth," goes a story born on the Internet, "in the middle of the desert." It's all alone out in the Mojave, a forgotten telephone network anomaly. And there's this guy, a Tempe resident named Godfrey Daniels, who loves it. He didn't discover the booth--some letter-writer to a Tacoma band's zine has that honor. But Daniels made it famous, shared his love for the anomaly on his Web site, and invited his readers to a celebration at the phone booth last August.
That's what his site, www.cardhouse.com/g, said a couple of weeks ago. It told the tale of the booth and extended a new invitation to join Daniels at his next Mojave Phone Booth Party on April 3. How many, do you suspect, showed up?
Better question: Why would anybody? The Internet is such an electronic prankster nowadays. Deceptive banner ads, chain e-mails promising cash from Bill Gates, fraud on eBay . . . who would trust a Web site with the tagline "Laying the groundwork for an insanity plea since 1995"? What if you go and the booth isn't there? What if nobody else shows up and you're left alone with some wacko? What if the phone is ringing, you answer it and a voice giggles, "April Fool's!" There are so many reasons not to participate in such idiocy, such a trip is a waste of time.
The drive takes seven hours.
Seven hours of freeway driving and desert and passing a painful number of phone booths. The Cima exit off Interstate 15, about an hour west of Las Vegas, is where the monotony ends and a dirt road leading to the phone booth begins.
Here, in the high desert, the temperature plummets and it begins to rain. The purple sky is on a rapid dimmer switch, visibly darkening and pulling down the temperature with it. The bumpy dirt road angles sharply and descends into a corridor of Joshua trees.
And, at last, something: cars, people in parkas, a tent and . . . a phone booth. In the middle of the desert.
A figure in a blue jumpsuit and an outback-cowboy hat approaches.
Mr. Daniels, I presume?
"That's me!" he says.
Five others have joined Daniels here. There's Dr. Cliff the Evil Dentist and his girlfriend Trixie from Santa Monica; Daniels' friend Mark Simple from the Bay Area; Molly, a true believer inspired by Daniels' Web site, from Palo Alto; and Krishna, one of Daniels' Burning Man acquaintances. Others were scared off by the storm, Daniels says, and others are still en route. The phone has been ringing nonstop.
About 150 calls have been "documented" (answered, logged, recorded) by Daniels and company since the night before. Earlier, Daniels had an interview with the Los Angeles modern rock station KROQ, which gave out the number to the booth. Station listeners have since been keeping the line busy with their calls.
Daniels gets into a Jeep to be interviewed because the weather is too ferocious to converse outside. He's no Colonel Kurtz, perhaps, but he's worth the journey nonetheless.
An Arizona native, Daniels grew up in Coolidge, a place he notes you wouldn't go to by accident, there's no reason to be there, it's not on the way to anything. His "de-formative years," he calls that time.
"I learned pretty early on that there was something not quite ordinary in my brain, so I learned early on to not really care what other people think," he says.
Daniels, 35, found the Internet to be an ideal medium to document his adventures and obsessions, cataloguing everything that's unusual about him. His site is enormous.
Daniels ran for Arizona State Legislature, House District 26 ("I wanted to see if there was some way to get the government off my back"), and received 3,049 votes. He tried to start a country called Oceania and, for his "Freedom Project," sent a questionnaire asking basic civil rights questions to every head of state in the world. He travels the country with his statue bust of Richard Wagner in his Herb Alpert Whipped Cream art car. He has more than a dozen audio clips from television personalities saying sentences that include the name "Godfrey" (but referring to other Godfreys, not him). He pays his bills doing freelance "computer systems architecture," says he hates making money and never thinks of his odd activities as spending leisure time. They are his "missions." His mother used to ask him, "Where did you come from?"
"He calls himself a hermit," says Daniels' longtime friend Mark Simple. "But he's the most social hermit I've ever met in my life."
When Daniels first read about the Mojave phone booth, he decided to call the number (760-733-9969) every day until he got an answer. Sooner or later, he figured, somebody must pick up. When friends visited, he insisted they call, too. After about a month of trying, he finally made contact. A woman named Lorene, who lived nearby but didn't own a phone, provided a description of the area. Convinced that the phone booth was real--and real isolated and real odd--an official new Godfrey Daniels mission was born.
"Well, I guess it's the strange juxtaposition," he says, when pressed to explain his fascination with the booth. "If you saw that same phone booth in South Phoenix, it wouldn't strike your attention. But out here it raises so many questions: You look at all the poles and wonder who on Earth went to this kind of trouble to get phone calls?
"I also like that its oddness is not limited to my sensibility; people worldwide have the same reaction."
For proof, let's go to the phones: Calls were documented on April 3 from Philadelphia, Nova Scotia, California and Arizona, Mexico, Toronto, Norway, North Carolina, New Zealand, New Brunswick, Albania. . . .
"We were trying to ask him things like, 'How are things going over there?' and, 'Are you safe?' but we weren't making ourselves understood at all," Daniels says. "The guy was mainly saying stuff like 'phone' and 'America,' and there was this woman in the background yelling, 'We're on American radio!'--I didn't have the heart to say otherwise."
The booth itself is a decorated mess. The glass was long ago shot out, and names are carved in the metal next to bullet holes. Where the word "Phone" was once displayed in plastic, Daniels has mounted a metal plaque bearing the words: "On this spot, men from www.cardhouse.com set foot inside the Mojave Phone Booth, August '98. We came in peace for all mankind." When you pick up the receiver, here in the middle of nowhere, voices sound appropriately distant. Lots of crackling static. Somehow, a clear signal would have been disappointing.
In the storm, the phone continues to ring. More strangers making phone calls to the moon:
-- Holbrook calling, a trucker, leaving his phone number. "Call me up before I die," he says.
-- Los Angeles calling, wanting to know if the phone booth guys are mooning passing traffic, not understanding that this is a place away from streets and freeways.
-- Houston calling, wanting to order a pizza, not knowing how common that particular joke is.
-- Phoenix calling, an elderly woman, saying, "Well, I was sitting around and I was depressed about the world and I read about this in the paper and I just took heart. And I just wanted to tell you that."
That type of call is Daniels' favorite.
"I like when people call and express delight," he says. "They just like that somebody is doing this. That's really nice."
All these people calling, all these connections being made where no connection is supposed to penetrate. People on the Internet, the most advanced communications system in the world, fascinated by a lone example of yesteryear's communications icon. All the techno-social implications, which Daniels calls "highfalutin." He may be an artist, of sorts, but he's not a pretentious artist. Nor is he disappointed by the turnout.
"I wouldn't want this to be something where 500 people showed up," he says. "You'd have people making a mess in the desert. To me, it's all about the phone. It's about getting the calls. If I was the only one here, I could still get the calls. But if people want to be here and join me, I like that. That's cool."
Suddenly, as if a phone booth in the middle of the desert weren't surreal enough on its own, a new element is added: snow. Huge, silver-dollar-size flakes hurling across the Mojave at a near-horizontal angle--a bona fide freak snowstorm. Cars are quickly coated, the Joshua trees become Christmas trees. Wintertime has come to Daniels' Narnia. They have to get out of here.
While others quickly pack their camping equipment, Daniels continues to take calls, shivering as the snow flies through the skeletal booth. "It's funny, nobody believes me when I tell them it's snowing," he says. "I have to explain to them that this is the high desert."
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Once the vehicles are loaded, the group caravans to the Nevada state line and checks into Whiskey Pete's hotel and casino. Waiting in the casino lobby, the Phone Boothers look like they're from another planet. They seem strangely ecstatic and alive, whooping and cracking jokes to the unamused staff. Daniels looks into the casino, frowning.
"What is that noise?" he asks.
It's the sound of money, the wonderful and never-ending siren song of the casino. A siren song that doesn't touch him. Daniels doesn't gamble, and skips breakfast the next morning. The lights, bells, whistles, coin-droppings have no effect. There's only one bell he wants to hear, and probably still can, even in the casino. It's the sound of a phone ringing in the middle of a desert snowstorm. Somehow, the phone pays off for him.
He looks at all the high-stakes revelry and shakes his head.
"I don't understand why anybody would enjoy this."